Who “Invented” Christianity?

Who “Invented” Christianity?

Fr John Breck

A certain mentality current in the middle of the last century lingers on in many quarters today. It is the notion that Christianity, as we know and celebrate it in the Church, is attributable not to Jesus, but to the Apostle Paul.In the mid-twentieth century, German Lutheran theology popularized a radical distinction between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith,” a distinction most Protestant theologians later modified, if not abandoned. In the minds of many laypeople, however, this emphasis provoked a radical disjuncture, often found today outside the Orthodox world, between history and theology.paul_iconIn this view, “history”—meaning “fact,” that is, “what really happened”—presents Jesus variously as an itinerant Galilean missionary, a thaumaturge (spiritual healer), or political revolutionary. His message focused on the coming of God’s Kingdom or Reign. He called a dozen or so disciples to accompany him, and they in turn were served by a group of women for their daily, practical needs. Jesus had no intention of creating an enduring community (the Church). Through his preaching he ran afoul of Jewish religious authorities by threatening to overturn Mosaic Law (reflected in the so-called “Matthean antitheses”: “You have heard it said…, but I say to you…”). He and his itinerant band managed to threaten Roman political and military authority as well (Judas in this scenario was a Zealot, and perhaps Jesus was as well). As a result, he was arrested, crucified as a political rabble-rouser and revolutionary, then buried in an unmarked grave, whose location was quickly forgotten. His disciples declared publicly and loudly that he had “risen from the dead” and that this “resurrection,” with his subsequent disappearance, would be followed by a “second coming.” But such things never actually happened.

“Faith” then shaped select elements of Jesus’ teaching and activity into a “Christ-myth.” This was structured according to current Hellenistic mystery religions, which focused on a “saved Savior,” a divine figure who died and rose from the dead, and whose followers gained salvation by ritual participation in his death and resurrection. The story of the empty tomb and Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances were devised as etiological legends, to explain the enduring belief that he was indeed alive after his crucifixion and burial.

Paul Conversion

Paul (Saul of Tarsus) experienced an unexplainable “conversion” while he was on his way to Damascus to persecute the increasingly bothersome Christians. This psychological phenomenon gave birth to the image of “the Christ of faith.” “The Christ” no longer signified either the Davidic king, as in portions of the Old Testament, or the hoped-for Messiah (Christos is the Greek form of the Hebrew title Messiah or “Anointed One of God”). In Paul’s re-imaging and re-imagining of the person of Jesus, the man of Nazareth became the pre-existent “Son of God,” an ancient Hebrew title designating the messianic roles of prophet, priest and king. After Jesus rose from the dead, he was rendered “present” among his followers by the Holy Spirit (or Spirit of God, Spirit of Christ, Rom 8:9-11). As the dying and rising God (Rom 6:3-4), Jesus works salvation for his human followers: he is the “new” or “second” Adam, whose obedience to “death on the cross” reverses the condemnation pronounced against the first Adam, through whom “sin came into the world.” Paul subsequently developed a “Christ-mysticism,” a notion of intimate, personal participation of the believer “in Christ” or “in the Body of Christ” (cf. Gal 2; 1 Cor 12-14, etc.).

Paul’s disciples later elaborated on these themes in letters to the Colossians (“in him the fullness of the Godhead was present bodily”) and Ephesians (on the Church as the universal “Body of Christ”). This kind of theological reflection laid the groundwork for what German theology called “Frühkatholizismus” or “early Catholicism,” marked by a conception of the Church as a hierarchical institution rather than a charismatic community of believers. The Pastoral Epistles (I-2 Timothy, Titus), claiming Pauline authorship and thereby Pauline authority, pressed this to the further stage of defining an ecclesial hierarchy of episkopos and presbyteros, or episkoposand diakonos, leading finally to the threefold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon.

This rapid sketch represents a gross generalization and simplification. Its purpose is simply to indicate the disjunction between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith” that has endured (in the popular mind and in that of a number of influential theologians) through the past several decades. That disjunction was based on the conviction that a movement occurred after Jesus’ death that turned Christian faith from a “proclamation event” into a “religion of salvation.” The focus, primarily under the influence of Paul, shifted from Jesus’ message to Jesus’ person, thus making Paul himself the true founder of the Christian religion. In this perspective, Paul, and not Jesus, is the real “inventor” of Christianity.

The corrective to this notion is provided by the reality of “tradition,”paradosis. The key passage is 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, where the apostle declares that what he transmits as the foundational content of Christian faith (Jesus’ death, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances) is nothing other thanwhat he received from the beginning (cf. I John 1:1-3!). He receives the eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ followers and transmits that witness faithfully. Paul invents nothing. The “Pauline Church” is in fact in total continuity with early Christian communities such as those in the region of Damascus, which Paul originally sought to destroy.

gospelThe tradition Paul received and passed on would eventually find written expression in the Gospels. In his own “occasional letters” he bases his entire teaching on what was known and experienced in the earliest Christian communities under the influence of Christ and the Spirit (Christ present and active in and through the Spirit). That prior witness, received by Paul and faithfully transmitted by him, already—before his conversion—derived from the experience of the living Christ within the preaching and sacramental life of the Church. Paul’s own witness is nothing other than his inspired theological reflection on the meaning of that earlier ecclesial memory.

Paul by no means “invented” Christianity. He received living tradition from those who came before him, who themselves had journeyed with Jesus during his earthly ministry and experienced his glorified presence within their respective communities of faith (see Galatians 1:11-24). Through the dramatic event of his conversion, Paul became a vital link in a chain of Holy Tradition. He became perhaps the most profound and influential interpreter of that Tradition, which, as the entire New Testament canon testifies, and the experience of Christian believers confirms, is grounded directly and unequivocally in the very person of the crucified and risen Christ.

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